A new year, a new Doctor: I suppose that was the motto the programme planners at the BBC had in mind when they scheduled the new Doctor Who to take over on January 2. I must confess that I was worried about the change: David Tennant has become a television icon over the past four years and almost as much a living symbol of the Doctor as Tom Baker. His replacement, Matt Smith, is 26 years old: for much of his life, the Doctor wasn’t in production. As a result, it may have been barely a speck on the fringe of his cultural awareness. Given this, how well will he perform in the role? I remain uncertain.
However, a change was inevitable. It is this process which has allowed the series to continue for over forty years as it eliminates reliance on any one actor; as much as fans wanted to echo David Tennant’s mournful “I don’t want to go” with laments of their own, it had to be. The blazing light of complicated special effects enveloped his body, his face changed, and Matt Smith emerged with a loud yelp. After a moment’s panic that he might have become a girl and checking to see that he still had all his limbs, he concluded his entrance with a loud “Geronimo!” as the TARDIS hurtled towards Earth.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most highly anticipated events on British holiday television. The viewing figures suggest that 10.4 million viewers tuned in for the transformation. While David Tennant is popular, and the marketing was effective, I have to wonder if that’s the entire story: is there something that we inherently like about regeneration?
Believe it or not, we regenerate as a matter of course. According to a colleague of mine who holds a PhD in biochemistry, every cell that one has in one’s body is replaced within seven years. As such, we are actually not at all of the same flesh with which we were born: perhaps it is a latent awareness of this process which makes the Doctor’s much more dramatic transformation interesting to audiences.
Perhaps we are also intrigued by the idea of starting afresh abruptly; obligingly, the script writers have generally made regeneration a part of the previous form suddenly becoming unviable. The First Doctor said “this body is wearing a bit thin” before turning into Patrick Troughton. The Third Doctor was poisoned before becoming Tom Baker. David Tennant succumbed to a massive dose of radiation poisoning, in a faint echo of the Third Doctor’s end, before his change. A situation becomes unbearable: we don’t like how things are turning out, we are plagued with aches, pains, illnesses, even self-loathing: how wonderful it would be to cast aside all that we are right now, and to have a fresh start in a blaze of glory. We can revel in the delciousness of the new, feeling the shackles of the past drop off like heavy weight, explore new capabilities and view the world through a refreshed set of eyes.
Whether by design or accident, it was apropos that the New Year was chosen for the debut of the new Doctor; the holiday is a flamboyant symbol of regeneration. By the time December 31 comes, the year has exhausted its opportunities and pleasures, its joys and regrets, its pain and its triumphs. Vast crowds of people cling together at Times Square, watching the lighted crystal ball drop, as if its perigee will represent the moment when the door is shut on the past, the slate is wiped clean, and in many cases, couples punctuate the moment with a tender kiss. Of course, there is no such thing as perfect renewal, even on Doctor Who. The Daleks and Cybermen follow the Doctor from body to body, still intent on his death. We may want to push the door shut on the past, but any victory is only partial: regardless of which form he inhabits the Doctor retains hundreds of years of memories, i.e., the narrative suggests that we are obliged to recognise the limits of renewal. However, the urge to begin again is a positive force because at its core is an idea that things can and should be better. One can start over, cognisant of mistakes made, wiser, but with fresh hope. When things become unbearable, or unviable, there is this chance so long as life is preserved: one can stop, breathe, be resolved, and start again.
We are at this point in the political process as well: for example, the Copenhagen summit, to put it bluntly, was a failure. Theoretically there was a formal undertaking by America, South Africa, China and India to reduce emissions, but it has all the meaning of an adolescent boy promising to clean up his room. The dirty socks still remain on the middle of the floor, the comic books lay strewn on the night table, the bed is still a dishevelled mess which reeks after not having been laundered for weeks, carbon belches out as China’s heaving industry continues its rapid expansion. However, there is time, albeit a brief amount: the world’s leaders need to breathe in, learn, and try again.
Health care reform in the United States is another case in point: it suffered from a massive dose of political radiation poisoning, dished out to it by an opaque process and transparent bribery such as Nebraska’s exemption from having to pay health care costs in perpetuity. The resulting bill, over 2500 pages, is a dense swamp of legislation whose true meaning would elude even the most ardent students of government. For the purposes of comparison, the original National Heath Service Act of 1946, which set up universal care in Britain, was approximately 400 pages when published in book form by His Majesty’s Stationery Office. In other words, the verbiage in “ObamaCare” says a great deal more, but does less. Worse, it may facilitate a new growth industry in its interpretation rather than its application. It is no wonder the public feared it even in bastions as liberal-minded as Massachusetts. The recent by-election in the Bay State and subsequent rejection of Martha Coakley was not entirely a referendum on this bill, but it would be foolish to dismiss this as a contributing factor to the result. With Scott Brown in place, the legislation is likely dead in its present form: hopefully this will create a space in which the Administration can refresh, regenerate, breathe in, and try again. There is still time. Yes, the process of “regeneration” could result in yet another dog’s breakfast: there are no guarantees that a fresh start won’t end any better than its predecessor. However, we hope, we try again, and sometimes, we succeed.